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A Master of Horror’s Jewish Ties

Shirley Jackson’s biographer talks about the American author’s Jewish connections, including a kugel recipe passed down by her mother-in-law

Marjorie Ingall
October 14, 2016
Miss Shari / Flickr
Miss Shari / Flickr
Miss Shari / Flickr
Miss Shari / Flickr

I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in ninth grade and my brain exploded. (Not literally. Jackson’s horror is more creepy than Cronenbergian.) What a subtle, deadpan, deliciously subversive writer she was! Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), among other books, had numerous short stories (including “The Lottery”) published in The New Yorker and was a repeat star of The Best American Short Stories anthologies. But I learned much later, alas, that not everyone views her as a literary writer. Perhaps because of her genre and perhaps because of her gender, she’s been taken less seriously as an artist than she should be.

Shirley Jackson (Wikimedia)
Shirley Jackson (Wikimedia)

Critic Ruth Franklin (who has contributed to Tablet) aims to change that with her rapturously reviewed new biography of Jackson. “Franklin traces the evolution of Jackson’s sensibility as a writer, building toward an ever-more nuanced understanding of the covert ways she deftly paired ‘the horrific with the mundane’ to both express her own anger and pain while also illuminating the fears, anxiety, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism of the conformity-obsessed Cold War era,” wrote Booklist in a starred review. The New York Times said “this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artist.”

Since I can’t wait to read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (I have been sidetracked by stupid books about chutzpahdik Hanukkah elves), I’ve been subscribed to Franklin’s mailing list for months. And I was surprised to receive in it a recipe for Shirley Jackson’s kugel. What? Surely this WASP-y seeming writer (see: last name) was not of the tribe!

By birth, no. But perhaps a bit by osmosis. Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a Brooklyn-born Jew who’d been raised Orthodox. His mother gave her daughter-in-law the kugel recipe. “It became something of a signature dish for Shirley,” Franklin noted in her newsletter, “so much so that she once wrote a [still unpublished] story around it.” In it, Jackson talks to a grocer’s wife about kugel, pointing out that “it’s not a real potato pudding unless you grate a couple of knuckles into it,” which is what my bubbe—and I’m sure yours—said too. Jackson, who favored a very pomo Twitter-friendly all-lowercase style for her drafts and missives, continued:

“i always use as many potatoes as i think i can stand to grate, and then add one more … that would be maybe eight…. i always grate two potatoes and then i make myself grate one onion and then i stop and dry my eyes and light a cigarette and then i count to fifty and then grate one more potato and then another onion and then i light a cigarette and then i count to fifty and then … i take the bowl — my yellow mixing bowl, that is — and i have it about half filled with grated potato and onion and i cover the top of the potato and onion with flour…. i take a glass dish and put a lump of butter in it…. when the butter melts — by the way, it ought to be chicken fat, but i like butter — i take the dish out and roll it around so the sides get coated with melted butter and then i pour the rest of the melted butter in with the onions and potatoes and flour and then i take three eggs, and i know it’s three because i crack the first two against each other and the third on the side of the bowl, and just drop them in without beating and … let’s see. salt. it always takes more than you think you need. you always think you’re putting in more than you did last time but it always needs salt anyway. so then you put it in the oven and leave it there … till dinner’s ready.”

I would try this recipe, but with gin substituted for the cigarette.

I chatted with Franklin, who is mid-book tour, about Jackson’s Jewish connections. “They were stronger than I expected them to be!” she said. Shirley and Stanley met at Syracuse University; both graduated in 1940. In 1945, Stanley got a teaching job at Bennington College, and Shirley wrote while also raising the couple’s four kids. “Stanley was brought up very traditionally Jewish,” Franklin said, “but decided at around 14 to be a militant atheist, as he put it, which attracted him to Communism, which he supported for a few years back when everyone else did. He didn’t observe any rituals as an adult, but he definitely identified as culturally Jewish. Mostly through food. After a few years of estrangement following their son’s marriage to a goy, “Stanley’s parents would come visit Vermont, bringing New York delicatessen and bagels and tongue that the children found kind of horrifying.”

In her private life, Jackson went by “Mrs. Stanley Hyman.” Her letters from readers were addressed to Shirley Jackson, but forwarded by her agent in an envelope addressed to Mrs. Stanley Hyman. “It must have been fun to be a woman back then,” Franklin noted dryly.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.